Waiting in the airport for my plane back to LA, I heard one of the CNN bloviators describe the last four days as a “Reign of Terror”. The mind boggles. I don’t mean to discount Boston’s tragedy and obviously these two crazy kids managed to kill four people and wound quite a few others, but by what measure was the 60 hours after the original bomb blast a “Reign of Terror”? Only by the measure of a fear obsessed 24/7 media culture that has taken the old, “if it bleeds, it leads” adage of the tabloids to its natural conclusion.
Lets step back and think about the quality of “terrorist” that has menaced America post 9/11. As incompetent a collection of losers and Osama wannabes as one could imagine. The shoe bomber, the underwear bomber, the Times Square bomber, and now these two confused Chechens. Here is my assumption about the Boston Bombers. The older brother, having been denied US citizenship because he beat up his girlfriend, becomes alienated and starts hanging out on Islamist web sites. Meanwhile the younger brother, already an American citizen is almost preternaturally assimilated into US youth culture. He’s handsome, smokes pot, has lots of girl friends and dresses like a typical hip hopster. The older brother comes back from a trip to Chechnya talking Jihad and the younger brother is too stoned to resist the manic appeal of his beloved brother to participate in the planting of the bombs, which the older brother has manufactured off of Islamist website recipes.
But they are the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. They are clueless to the fact that any big city in America has almost complete surveillance coverage of its streets. They don’t even think of trying to escape! The little brother goes out and gets stoned with his friends the night after the Marathon. It’s only the next morning when he realizes that he might need his car, which is in the shop getting repaired. By the time both their pictures are on TV, they are in a state of complete panic. You can almost hear the younger brother pleading with his sibling, “what the fuck did you get me into?”
When the inevitable happens and they are cornered by the cops, they comically try to throw one of their IED’s at the cops, only to have it bounce 20 feet in front of them, explode and fill their own legs full of shrapnel.
But if you were to tune into Cable news on Thursday or Friday, you would have not heard about this Opera Bouffe, but rather be confronted with all the post 9/11 Terror in our Cities graphic packages, complete with scary music. A whole city shut down for 24 hours over what should have been treated as a high level SWAT operation. Was there anyone who even dared to ask if this was really the appropriate reaction?
As I have been saying for a while, the default setting for American media and finance culture for at least the last 12 years has been FEAR. It has forced us to overreact in almost every sector. It forced us into two unnecessary wars. It forced us to bail out the big banks at the public expense. It has kept Americas great companies from investing in our future, preferring to hold $trillions in cash on their balance sheets for what they are assured is the coming shitstorm where they will no longer be able to borrow. And few realize that most of the Great Wall Street fortunes made in this period have been by taking advantage of the fear culture. The whole hedge fund economy is based on taking a short position (betting on failure) and then “talking your book” so it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. How did John Paulson accumulate one of the great fortunes of our time? By designing a securitized bundle of mortgages that HE KNEW WOULD FAIL, taking the short side of the trade and then getting some suckers (fooled by the AAA rating) to take the long side.
Nothing productive has come out of this fear culture. Despite the constant barrage of bad news, the world has actually gotten better in the last 12 years. Millions have been lifted out of poverty. Life expectancies have improved. More women and minorities are being educated and are taking positions of power. Cars are getting more efficient and less polluting. But for a tabloidized media culture, these are not interesting stories. And for speculative capitalism, good news does not bring instant windfalls like a great short play.
As a society we have to realize that Franklin Roosevelt was right when he said, “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.” America’s innovation culture was not built by being risk averse, just the opposite. Just how the media and the stock speculators could heed Roosevelt’s advice is of course the much larger question.